The True Potential of the Internet: A Critical Look at Facebook and the Human Tech Ladder

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A bridge with a city in the background

Technology is often created without carefully examining all five aspects of Vicente Fox’s Human-tech ladder: physical, physiological, team, organization, and political. This leads to technology that is not very Human-tech and will usually require a trained professional to learn how to use, as evident by the “Bring me the Geeks” attitude many have towards technology these days. Facebook is a “social utility” site, and it is one of the most popular sites on the web right now. The internet has created a new era of connectivity and communication never possible before. Facebook’s massive popularity can be partially attributed to the quality of the service provided, with attention to the details that matter for users of said service. I myself am a daily Facebook usthater, and it is the number #1 site I spend my time on. Thus, I feel that the most recent couple of years of my life, using Myspace and then making the migration to Facebook along with a quarter of Cognitive Science have been enough research for this critical look at Facebook. I am the typical Facebook member, an 18 year old college student. Of course, since Facebook is a social utility I will focus my criticism on the social impact of Facebook.

Over the history of the internet, there have been many trends in the sites that were most popular. I personally experienced these trends during my youth, as the internet was still developing. At first, web log or blog sites were popular as public online diaries. I remember writing in mine the things that had happened that day, usually if I had something interesting to say or something to complain about. I would read my friends online diaries and comment on the stories they told, and they would comment back on mine. This socializing element of reading and commenting on school friends’ blogs took up a lot of my spare time, but it was soon replaced with a more connective website called Myspace. On Xanga, the online blog service that I used in middle school, friends would “subscribe” to each other’s blogs, and a list of friends would show up on the left hand side of the blog. This connected friends, and you could see who was friends with who. Of course, in simpler words the name of the game was popularity. And pretty soon, we’d be looking at a more decentralized social media platforms with the help of dwebguide.com.

Myspace took this to the next level. Instead of just a blog, users could create their own site with graphics, music, and complete connectivity to other users. There were features such as instant messaging from within Myspace and messages as an alternative to email. A large portion of the Myspace experience was acquiring friends, commenting on their sites, and receiving comments on your own site. Once again, popularity is a factor, and some users try to acquire as many friends as humanly possible. Users could also set which friends were their top friends, and this added to the popularity factor present in all social networking sites. However, Myspace offered too much freedom to the user. Users could input Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) code, and this often resulted in pages far too wide or long with horrible graphics. Myspace’s “successor” kept things simple, and is called FaceBook, a Myspace alternative which, besides photographs, only supports plain text input from the user. This resulted in user sites which were much less personal and unique to the individual but were easier on the eyes and ears.

Facebook does make a large profit, yet its users do not pay a single cent. This is possible because Facebook does not provide a physical product but instead an online service. Facebook employs banner ads, taking advantage of the extremely large amount of people that visit the site daily. According to Alexa, a website which ranks sites by traffic, Facebook is the 7th most popular site on the internet and the site to which the most digital photos are uploaded. This shows the impact the internet can have on the economy. On the human-tech ladder’s first rung (physical), Facebook has nothing, but according to Wikipedia, Facebook makes an estimated $150 million a year. Facebook shows that not all technologies must have a physical component. Facebook is only possible through the internet; without the internet, Facebook would not exist.

The internet has made what was once impossible a reality in the form of instant connection with anyone around the world. Facebook and other social networking sites are a form of asynchronous communication, as messages and comments are not seen right when they are made but saved for later viewing by others. Facebook is not the only social networking site, but it is one of the most popular ones today. Most high school and college students have accounts, and more people are continuously joining. This brings up the third rung of the human-tech ladder: “team”. Straight from Facebook’s homepage, “Facebook is a Social Utility that connects you with the people around you.” This definition shows how vital the team aspect of the Human-tech ladder is to Facebook. The team rung of the Human-tech ladder is Facebook. Facebook users are members of a certain “networks”. This network can be their high school or college or even the geographical region. For example, I am in the Tamalpais High School, UCSD, and Silicon Valley networks. I can view members of the networks and add them as friends. This network system keeps the younger members of FaceBook safer from online predators.

In any online activity where there is some level of anonymity, online predators always emerge. This is a common problem for chat rooms, Myspace, and even Facebook. However, Facebook does minimize this problem with its age limit of 13 and network system. The issue of online predators is not an issue with Facebook itself but an issue originating from people. Facebook also has privacy options that users can set. By default, anyone can be found with a search, but complete privacy from strangers can be achieved through the adjustable privacy settings. With Facebook, you are exposed as you want to be. However, not everyone realizes that these privacy settings are available.

The one true reason why sites such as Myspace and Facebook have immense popularity is the answer to the question of the meaning of life. As a believer of science, I believe in Darwin’s evolutionary theories. Thus, as the most evolved species, so far, Homo Sapiens are always searching for the best possible mates. Facebook makes this astonishingly easy. If you have somebody’s first name, you can find them and their Facebook profile. A user’s profile is arguably the most important thing. You make your Facebook profile your own; it has what you want to show the world, nothing less, nothing more. Three highly important details are a user’s religion, gender, sexual orientation, and relationship status. I myself found out a friend was gay via Facebook before talking to him about it. Everything is in your Facebook, and this is the beauty of Facebook. Through language, people express themselves differently, and language is a technology invented to facilitate communication. Darwin’s evolution agrees with cognitive science research finding specific regions of the brain responsible for speech and verbal processing. Technology is evolution, from the original ancestor, to the most modern descendent. Everything is recycled but made more efficient, cleaner, faster, trimmer, sleeker. Facebook is Myspace evolved a generation or two.

So, you can decide who the best mates are and eliminate others. This can be done based on taste in music, books, or even religion. Human religions usually require mating within the respective religion. But for some individuals, looks are all that matter when choosing a mate, and profile pictures are where users place their most attractive photos for potential mates to see. In the photos, users can “tag” where other people are, and then a link is placed to their respective Facebook profile pages. This links everyone together, and creates a sense of a spiderwebbed community of people linked together.

Relationship status is one highly important factor of Facebook. Choices available are: single, in a relationship, engaged, married, and in open relationship. Via a simple drop down blue bar menu, a very important fact in deciding potential mates is available. Facebook’s effect on society is very real, and this is the definition of relationships. Users can choose to hide their relationship status or proudly display it. Men can marry men, and women can marry women. Facebook is completely open to members of all races, religions, and sexual orientations.

The relationship status on Facebook is in my experience, the defining factor of relationships. The entire world sees it, so if you are Single, the world knows it. If you break up with your girlfriend at 4 AM, the world will know it. With technology such as email, texting, and now Facebook, people in relationships have many ways to end things. Facebook is an easy solution, as you’re going to have to change the status anyways. It is killing two birds with one stone.

I have seen Facebook “marriages”, and this is not as ridiculous as it may first sound. With divorce rates always rising, marriage itself is a gamble. Getting married on Facebook would make getting a divorce much easier and cut out the time and money wasted. However, a traditional wedding with friends and family present and dancing is impossible via Facebook. Of course, this brings up the main drawback of the internet. With so much interaction becoming online, actual real life interaction decreases. This is arguable, but definitely many users have noticed such a trend. However, it is an inevitable drawback that can be easily countered by having a life away from the internet.

Facebook is a completely social service, and society itself is a technology. Within societies, Facebook is used to organize events, such as parties, fundraisers, and dances. Through Facebook’s Events application, users can find out how many people are going to the upcoming dance. This coordination of events (where / when / who) is the organizational aspect of the Facebook technology.

Organization is the rung second to last before the political aspect. The politics of Facebook have stirred up controversy regarding the privacy provided to its users. Facebook stores a large amount of information, as it has millions of users. This leads to privacy issues; it is not certain how much of its users information Facebook stores and for how long. Also, Facebook does use user’s specific information to display related banner ads. Another feature, introduced in 2006 is the News Feed, a self updating view of everything going on in the lives of a user’s friends. Of course, this brings up privacy issues, with everybody looking at every move you make online, this can be quite concerning. However, Facebook has realized the problem and created privacy settings that can be customized to the user’s liking.

Through Facebook, you can express yourself in exactly the way you want to. There are pre-existing categories to place the details of your life in. I click “edit” next to my Profile and I can put in my: sex, birthday, hometown, political views, religious views. Right away, I can tell someone I am a male Capricorn libertarian from Boston who goes to church on holidays. Facebook lets you tell everyone else who you are, and you in turn, get to see who everybody else is. You can see how interesting other people are.

One highly important feature of Facebook is the “status”. Previously limited to statements beginning with “is”, such as “Dosan is hiding in a treehouse”, the status is your main claim to the world. Today, the status can be anything such as “Dosan wants steak, rare.” This status is very important, and users are constantly updating their statuses to let the world know what’s going on. This is very important. With a quick glance at the page of status updates, I get the bigger picture, a situation awareness similar to a workplace, but with the people in my life. I see what’s going on and can act accordingly.

However, with the Web 2.0 wave splashing the internet’s shores, Facebook has changed. Now, individual developers can develop their own programs or “Applications”. These applications may include features such as an “Advanced Wall” or “Super Poke”, an evolution of the original poke feature on Facebook. The poke feature on Facebook is often a tool of flirting when used between potential mates or joking fun when done with friends. Now, with SuperPoke, people can do other things besides poke, such as jab, punch, bite, or even kick. However, with an abundance of applications, Facebook is now starting to see the clutter which plagued its predecessor Myspace. This clutter however, is much rarer on Facebook than on Myspace.

Facebook’s layout is very clean, and it is a contrast to Myspace’s kiddish background pictures and crazy fonts of all different sizes and colors. The theme is a gentle blue, which leads to a professional yet soothing effect. The backgrounds are a simple white with contrasting black text on top. The layout and readability of Facebook is the physiological aspect, the second rung of the Human-tech ladder. The ease of use of the layout is even more evident when accessing Facebook from a device such as the Apple iPhone or iTouch. Facebook accommodates for these devices and presents a layout designed for the smaller screensize. Facebook’s design is very clean and modern, and so Facebook succeeds in the physiological experience their service offers. One aspect which is noticeable in its design is consistency of layout. Things are easy to find, because they are always in the same place. The main categories are on top: Profile, Friends, Networks, and Inbox. On the left hand side are the Applications.

A few applications I have are imeem for sharing music with my friends, Courses 2.0 for finding classmates, and Honesty Box, an application which allows for anonymous messages. With Facebook applications and Web 2.0, the possiblities for Facebook are unlimited, as applications can be anything possible from a Tetris game to sending free “gifts” in the form of cute pictures.

Facebook is the combination of social networking sites and Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is not the future, but more the present. It is no coincidence that the most popular sites on the internet allow for users to submit content. Such sites include Digg, Youtube, and Flickr. Facebook can actually combine all of these sites through Applications. This allows Digg, Youtube, and Flickr members to personalize their profile pages with the services that they support and use themselves.

Analyzing Facebook from a Human-tech perspective, I can see why Facebook is so massively popular. As the most highly evolved intelligent animal species, Humans are very social by nature. Facebook provides a common medium for social interaction and allows users to easily interact with each other, whether for business or pleasure. Facebook is very versatile, and the addition of applications from third-party developers means things will stay fresh and interesting. However, with the internet there is always something new, as Myspace knows too well. Perhaps Facebook will stay at the top until the end of time, but the economic payoff of creating the next Facebook or Myspace will be a great motivator. As Donald Norman said, “well designed things are easy to use”, and Facebook definitely is the best social networking site right now in terms of features, design, and dedicated member base.

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